Category: Series Introduction

My top ten Grieg Lyric Pieces

The ten sets of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces encapsulate the composer’s entire creative development. The pieces collectively summarise many of the typical concerns of the later Romantic era—nature, nationalism, nostalgia, programme music, a taste for the miniature or fragmentary—and demonstrate Grieg’s cultivation of a personal and, as it were, recognisably Nordic musical dialect, namely, one of directness, emotional restraint, a pithiness redolent of the sagas, and a soundworld steeped in in the musical traditions of his native land. As such, these works alone would suffice to put Norway on the musical map, and reserve for Grieg a permanent place in music history, and in pianists’ hearts. 

Although several Lyric Pieces have reached, not undeservedly, a level of popularity that eclipses their companions—‘Sommerfugl’, ‘Til våren’, ‘Nocturne’, and ‘Bryllupsdag på Troldhaugen’ among the more technically challenging; those of the opus 12 set at a more accessible level—I would encourage you to look beyond these well-known choices. Each published set works as a selection, and in this context some of the less obvious choices make more sense, serving as foils to the pieces around them. Of course, if you’re feeling creative, it is possible to cherry-pick your own sequences that achieve the same result.

My ‘top ten’ is compiled with the intention of looking beyond the obvious, making only one choice from each published set, and also choosing one piece from each of the groups into which the Lyric Pieces can be sorted according to their sources of inspiration. Let’s dive in!

  1. Inspired by folklore: ‘Elf-dance’, op. 12 no. 4
  2. Inspired by European dances: ‘Waltz’, op. 38 no. 7 – coming soon
  3. Inspired by nature: ‘Little Bird’, op. 43 no. 4 – coming soon
  4. Inspired by loss: ‘Elegy’, op. 47 no. 7 – coming soon
  5. Romantic charakterstück: ‘Scherzo’, op. 54 no. 5 – coming soon
  6. Inspired by nostalgia: ‘Bygone Days’, op. 57 no. 1 – coming soon
  7. Inspired by travel and home: ‘Homeward’, op. 62 no. 6 – coming soon
  8. Inspired by story-telling: ‘In ballad style’, op. 65 no. 5 – coming soon
  9. Inspired by family life: ‘At your feet’, op. 68 no. 3 – coming soon
  10. Inspired by Nordic tradition: ‘Halling’, op. 71 no. 5 – coming soon

Featured composer: Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944)

The French composer Cécile Chaminade features in both LCM and TCL diploma syllabuses, appearing in the repertoire lists for DipLCM, ALCM, LLCM, and ATCL. This is not a token nod, either, as the choice of works by Chaminade is more than double that of those by Amy Beach, Miriam Hyde, Clara Schumann, or those by the living composers Sofia Gubaidalina, Judith Weir, and Diana Burrell — this last being the only female composer to feature at all in the ABRSM’s repertoire lists.

This relative embarrassment of riches is no doubt partly due to the ‘syllabus-ready’ nature of many of her works, which for the most part fall into that now much-derided category called ‘salon music’: which generally implies relatively short, technically straightforward characterful pieces that, for all their invention and charm, remain somewhat conservative in their musical language, and are therefore valued less than more challenging — for player or listener — and more ‘progressive’ works by some of her contemporaries.

Well, the times they are a-changing, and we are perhaps better placed now to appreciate these works for what they are, rather than denigrate them for what they are not, than were the earlier commentators whose opinions, like it or not, have been passed down to us today in the form of a canon of ‘great works’ written by a group of predominantly male and almost exclusively white composers. While geographical origins and immutable historical circumstance — regardless of its injustice — might account for the white-heavy-ness, an ever-growing number of studies shows that musical composition has never been an exclusively male activity, even if musical professionalism was, until the twentieth century, by and large a stain on the social reputation of ‘respectable’ women, just as was a career on the stage, or indeed, any career at all. Chaminade’s own life illustrates this middle-class prejudice: her father forbade her from enrolling in theory classes at the Paris Conservatoire, despite Le Couppey’s enthusiastic recommendation that she do so; for him, private tuition with Le Couppey was a more decorous compromise.

It is not my aim here, however, to justify or to explain the wrongs of the past. Rather, I celebrate representation of female composers’ piano works in the syllabus lists, even if it is patchy — where’s Fanny Hensel, for instance? — and hope that this will encourage further exploration and yet more discovery of works that, because of little more than historical accident, have not yet received their proper due.

This series of posts will examine all the works by Chaminade to feature on the current diploma syllabus repertoire lists, and offer some musical and technical suggestions for tackling them productively. These works are:

Sonata in C minor, second movementop. 21W23DipLCM
Sonata in C minor, completeop. 21W23ATCL
Étude symphoniqueop. 28W32LLCM
Automneop. 35, no. 2W42DipLCM, ATCL
Fileuseop. 35, no. 3W43ALCM (with no. 4)
Scherzoop. 35, no. 4W44ALCM (with no. 3), LLCM
Tarentelleop. 35, no. 6W46DipLCM
Marineop. 38W56ALCM
Toccataop. 39W57ATCL
Les Sylvainsop. 60W83ALCM
Balladeop. 86W116ALCM
Thème variéop. 89W124ALCM
Sérénade vénitienneop. 154W227LLCM

In terms of their availability, all works are available on IMSLP at the time of writing, in first edition, except for op. 60, and op. 38 — which IMSLP says is a first edition, but is actually from a slightly later American edition, a collection entitled Anthology of French Piano Music (Boston: Ditson, 1906). In modern editions, Les Sylvains can be found in Kalmus’s Selected Compositions, and also in Dover’s Cécile Chaminade Piano Music, where it is accompanied by Étude Symphonique, Automne, and Tarantelle. Automne, undoubtedly one of Chaminade’s most well-known piano works, also features in LCM’s In Concert.

There is an error in the LCM repertoire list, as op. 35 no. 4 is in fact Appassionato, Scherzo is op. 35 no. 1. The error is consistent in both ALCM and LLCM lists. I have contacted LCM for clarification, and will update this post when I receive a response. — MM

For background, you cannot do better than Marcia J. Citron’s Cécile Chaminade: a Bio-Bibliography (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1988) which, although it is ostensibly a catalogue of works and writings, is remarkably thorough, and contains a detailed biography. Since its publication in 1988, no other English-language monographs devoted to Chaminade have appeared, and only a couple of articles dedicated to her music (although she does receive passing mention in a number of discussions of related subjects).

I will examine each of these works in dedicated posts, giving you an analytical overview, as well as some technical and musical suggestions. Check out the links below as they appear here!

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